Every day, dozens of babies were born in the hospital. Only this particular little boy, however, looked as if he’d been born of it.
Every color on him, from the palor of his skin to the dustiness of his hair, went well with the adjective “sterile.” His eyes were the clear blue of industrial-strength hand sanitizer. His shirt, though it advertised for his (presumably) favorite cartoon, was the off-blue of a hospital gown. He wore the stern expression of a doctor going in to perform surgery as he paced in front of the bed. He watched the nearby heart-rate monitor as if it were the cartoon emblazoned on his shirt.
Every afternoon, a high-heeled woman walked him in to the hospital lobby and checked him in as a visitor. He went down the hallway to sit beside the comatose lady while his finely-dressed escort swept herself away. The boy sat. He did not whip out a portable video game system, or a cell phone, or even a book. He sat with himself and the life-support beeps, and occasionally he touched the lady’s face or hands.
Ever since the woman had been brought in, Nurse Carmine did his best to work around the boy. He excused himself around him, or told the boy to wait outside, while he ran his checks on the patient. Quietly, the boy moved into the hallway. He spoke only to acknowledge the doctor. While he stood, beyond the door, he did not look offended or hurt. He watched the other doctors and nurses go by, with their medical supplies and meals for patients, and when Nurse Carmine left, the boy thanked him and went back inside.
Two hours later, the high-heeled woman returned. She took the boy back with her, and together, they left the hospital.
Nurse Carmine sometimes watched the boy go. But until the clock signaled the end of his shift, he was not free to follow.
It had been ten days since Ms. Annabelle Cooper had been brought to the hospital and fallen comatose. For ten days, Nurse Carmine had watched the small boy move in and out of the hospital, rarely speaking, never smiling, never frowning. On that tenth day, however, as Nurse Carmine shuffled into the room to make his usual checks, he noticed the boy doing something different. More than once, he had seen the little boy surreptitiously brushing the lady’s hands. Today, however, he had his fingers cupped beneath hers, carefully avoiding the white patient band around her wrist. The low hum in the room was too melodic to be from the medical instruments.
Nurse Carmine cleared his throat. The sharp sound rocketed around the room. The boy’s head uncurled in a smooth wave. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll leave now.”
Nurse Carmine stowed his hands behind his back, and swallowed. The deep blue of the boy’s eyes was magnetically powerful, but couldn’t decide on its polarity. Nurse Carmine’s gaze glanced away, but quickly fell back in. “Uh... hi, kiddo. Are you singing your mom a lullaby?”
The boy glanced back at the lady’s face. The glare of the hospital lights overhead made her eyelashes cast pointed shadows around her sunken eyes. “Lullabies help people sleep. I don’t think she needs any help.” Nurse Carmine made a face, at first. But the boy moved his hand to the lady’s forehead, and made a tender sweep across it. “I’m singing her a different song. One about things being OK. She likes it. If she can still hear me, I thought it might help.”
Nurse Carmine let out a thick sigh. “So... your name’s Benji, right? That’s what you put down on the sign-in sheets. You know, you have very good penmanship for a kid your age.”
“Thank you.” The boy pulled his hands back into his lap, and sat up straight in his chain. “Ms. Leman says so too.” He glanced over at his mother, and snuck his hand back on top of hers. He and Nurse Carmine watched each other for several seconds. The boy made no sudden movements, but he never had. Nurse Carmine, however, made no attempt to approach the patient, and his clipboard dangled superfluously at his side.
The boy seemed to decide that Nurse Carmine was ignoring him. His full attention went back towards his mother. The same tune, as sincerely out-of-tune as little boys were prone to sing, toyed with the air.
“...So. Uh... How you doing today, kiddo?”
The boy did not look away from his mother. “Sad,” he replied. “I think Mom’s going to die.”
Nurse Carmine toyed with his keyboard. “Aww, don’t talk like that, kiddo. A positive attitude helps with the healing process. It’s true, you know!”
“Her attitude. Not mine.” The boy shook his head. “I heard what the doctor said when she came to the hospital. He didn’t want to tell me, because he was afraid of making me cry. But I don’t cry. Even at Disney movies.” He his sigh copied Nurse Carmine’s almost note for note. “But he told the other adults, and kids can hear things that adults tell each other, even when they don’t think they will. The doctor said she suffered ‘massive cranial trauma.’ And she has pressure on the inside of her skull and—“—he took a deep breath in preparation—“—he-morrh-aging. When I told it to the other kids at school, I had to explain what that meant. But you’re a nurse, so you know already.”
The boy’s face was an animatronic creation, manipulated behind the scenes by inhuman wires. His chin moved up and down to follow along with the words, and his eyes tracked invisible butterflies. Nurse Carmine’s breath caught. But the boy stared directly into Nurse Carmine’s eyes as he addressed him by title. An uncertain smile appeared on the nurse’s face.
“You know, kiddo, most kids don’t get that right. Most of them think—it’s kind of like with chickens, I suppose? Only instead of hens and roosters, all the males are doctors and all the females are nurses. You’re the first kid in a while—“
“Doctors diagnose and treat patients; nurses take care of them,” the boy recited. “It’s on TV. You come in and check on Mom a lot, but if something’s wrong with her, you have to get a doctor to help you. But she hasn’t changed, has she? I got an adult to ask for me.”
Nurse Carmine chuckled. “Oh, you got a spy in the adult world, do you, Benji? A secret agent, relaying all out secrets back to kid-kind! We’d better be careful!” The nurse pushed his smile into his cheeks, up over its natural limits.
The boy looked at Nurse Carmine’s clipboard. “Do you need to check on Mom now? I’ll leave.”
The nurse let his smile down. “...Yeah. I do.”
The next day, Nurse Carmine tried to work at such a pace that, when three o’clock rolled around, he had time to swing by the lobby and see the high-heeled woman escort the boy in. His glance told him little more than he already knew. The dress was neither businesslike nor casual. The hair was cropped short in a fashion stuck firmly between professional and sporty. Her face bore the creases of someone only just off work. She hovered around the boy while he wrote his name on the sign-in sheet. Her own signature followed in a flourish. While the boy signed his name in the practiced cursive of most children his age, her name was the usual artsy vortex most adults signed under. Once the receptionist waved them off, the woman tapped the boy on the head and strode out of the hall. Truthfully, Nurse Carmine thought, the boy was probably below the age the hospital set for solo visitors. But the boy blended into the scenery and slipped in beneath his camouflage, and either way, he’d proven himself not to be a disruption.
Nurse Carmine went back to his rounds. His feet sprung up in their soles whenever he passed the lady’s room. His nose darted towards the glass. For once, he caught the boy doing something besides sitting. Today, he had a packet of papers in his lap, and his pencil darted across them as he wrote out sums. But his downturned mouth made whispered words as he wrote. The nurse knew little of lip-reading, especially when he could only see half of the lips in question. But the boy’s mouth hung open at times, as if he were holding notes.
But that room was not in the now. In the now, there was a girl put up in bed with a bad leg fracture who needed tending to. There was an oxygen-producing electrolysis machine that needed to be wheeled from one wing to another. There were other patients, asleep but not comatose, who needed their data recorded. The boy was part of later.
The now moved slowly. The girl needed help moving her leg sling. One of the wheels on the machine got stuck. His hands kept shaking, and smearing the numbers on his chart. He checked his watch, fearing that five o’clock would appear before he had a chance to reach the lady’s room. And yet, somehow, he found himself there again, with the boy still present. He’d stowed the homework somewhere, as well as the song. Nurse Carmine cleared his throat again, because it was the only introduction he could figure out.
“Hey there again, Benji.”
“Hello again, Mister.” The boy wiggled in his chair.
“How are you again today, Benji? Feeling any better?”
“Aww. That’s a shame. But I saw you brought homework today! ...I passed by earlier, and noticed you doing it. And it looked like you were talking to your mom. Were you?”
The boy shook his head. “Singing,” he said. “The same song from last time. Mom heard it in a commercial, but she decided she really liked it, so she downloaded it.”
“Think it’s helping?” The nurse gave him an indulgent smile.
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about helping sick people.” The boy put his hands in his lap, and his thumbs twiddled. This time, when Nurse Carmine stared at him, the boy let out the occasional flinch. The nurse’s eyes silently assaulted the boy, seeking out those moments of vulnerability and striking them.
“...So, kiddo. Benji. Who’s the woman who always helps you over here, hmm? She your aunt, maybe?”
“Ms. Leman,” the boy shrugged. “She’s my teacher. She’s also Mom’s friend. She says she would come in here and see Mom, but she says it’s too ‘emotionally draining.’ She means she would cry too much. She was really sad in class for a few days, after Mom got hurt. She asked the principal if she could have a few days off after it happened, but he said no. ...Ms. Leman didn’t tell me that part, but like I said, I can hear stuff too.”
Nurse Carmine frowned. “That’s a pretty sad story, Benji. Do you have any other family members who could maybe take you over sometimes? Sounds like it upsets your teacher pretty bad.”
The boy shook his head. “I don’t have a dad. Mom said she was gonna make up a story about why, once, but she knew I would never believe her if she did. So she just told me that she had me through a sperm donor. I know kids my age aren’t supposed to know what sperm is, but she told me anyway. It’s OK, though.” Once again, he put his palm over his mother’s hand. “It seems hard, having two parents. You always have to worry if you like one less than the other. Do you think parents like that get worried that they’re their kid’s least favorite?”
The nurse let himself chuckle. “Well, Mr. Know-Everything, my wife and I are expecting a baby ourselves.” Fleeting creases crossed the nurse’s forehead. His head tipped back over his shoulder for a second. “But my wife is a very nice woman. If our kid likes her more... frankly, I don’t blame them.”
“That’s nice for you,” the boy said. Nurse Carmine wasn’t sure, but he had a sneaking suspicion the boy meant it. “I hope your baby is healthy and likes both of you. ...I’ll leave now, so you can check on Mom.”
The boy’s voice rushed. The legs of his chair tipped slightly as he got up from it. The boy shouldered a backpack from the floor, and made for the door.
Nurse Carmine barred him with a hand. “...Wait a moment, Benji. Who are you staying with now, if you don’t have any family?”
“Ms. Leman,” he said. “She used to come over a lot, even before I was in her class. A lot of the kids think it’s weird that I go home with the teacher, and some of the adults think it’s weird too. They whisper when I get close, but they start talking loudly even when I’m still nearby. They just wait until I walk away a little.” Nurse Carmine’s arm was held high enough that the boy could duck under it without much trouble. But the boy stood, unbent, staring at the nurse’s shoulder until he moved the arm away.
The boy would not move, so Nurse Carmine drew in his arm. The boy went on past him to occupy his usual spot in the hallway.
The next day, Nurse Carmine swung by the lady’s room in the middle of his routine. There was no time for a proper stop until the patient’s number came around. But he pressed his nose into the glass and threw a wave towards the boy. The boy gave a curt, stiff waggle of his hand back. Nurse Carmine went back to his job.
In the middle of one hallway, between the girl with the severe leg fracture and a woman recovering for an operation, Dr. Goldberg came to him.
“Dr. Goldberg?” The nurse held his clipboard like a shield in front of his chest. In response, the doctor held his shoulders in an appropriately warlike fashion. “I—is there something you need help with? I didn’t think...”
The doctor’s creased lips dug deep into the corners of his chin. “I’m sorry, Carmine. You’re not in trouble, if that’s what you’re asking. At least, I don’t think so.”
The clipboard eased down. “Oh. What... what can I help you with, then?”
The doctor wet his lips with his tongue. “...An ambulance just brought in Judy.”
The clipboard went slipping through the nurse’s fingers. He bent and contorted to keep it from clattering on the floor. “Judy—! Wh-what—what happened to her? Was there an accident at the library? She didn’t fall off a ladder again, did she? They need to fix those things. Oh my God. Is she alright? An ambulance—is she still conscious?”
“She has an abnormally high fever and she was feeling faint. She thought she was going to black out, but she’s remained conscious. She’s lying up in Room 314 right now. If you want to take a few minutes to go see her, someone can cover for you down here...”
Nurse Carmine bowed, with his clipboard plastered to his waist. “I... thank you, sir. I’ll be back.”
The nurse then turned, and cantered towards the stairs.
He knew better than to run in a hospital. But his pace did not falter. Those who knew him usually knew Judy as well, and many of those had seen her, wheeled in on the stretcher. Nurse Carmine pictured the damage in his head: Her forehead red and beaded with sweat; her jaw limp with her ragged breathing. She kept her eyes closed to prevent them from swimming. His flat shoes smacked against the stairs.
He burst into the hospital room with as much force as he dared muster. The scene before him was much like the one in his head. The reddened skin, closed eyes, and sweat were all there. The slack jawline was impossible to see, because the burning Judy was guzzling water. He had also forgotten to put the active-duty nurses and doctor into the picture. James was helping Dr. Schneider with Judy’s temperature, and administering antipyretics with Dr. Schneider’s consent.
Nurse Carmine clicked into place beside them. His hand hovered over Judy’s bed. He could sense the heat without directly touching her. “Judy...”
“Hello, Marv,” Judy said. She swallowed deeply from her cup. “Dr. Goldberg let you off to come see me, huh? Thought he might do that. He’s... he’s a good guy.”
“Are... are you alright? Do you still feel dizzy? He said you have a temperature. How high? Do you know what caused this? Did you feel like this this morning?”
“That’s what we’re still figuring out,” Dr. Schneider cut in. “Give us some time to make a diagnosis! We’re doctors, not computers. We’ll have to take a rectal temperature to get an accurate internal reading. ...Sorry, Judy.”
“It’s fine,” she smiled. “Who needs dignity? Just... just wait until my husband leaves the room. Heaven forbid he sees me naked.” She opened one eye long enough to wink.
Nurse Carmine wove his fingers into Judy’s blazing hands. She was hot as August in the middle of March. The nurse’s free hand mopped at his eyes. “The... the baby. Do you think... do you think the baby will...”
“I’ve got a good feeling about this one,” Judy smiled. Her eyelids twitched. “I think he’s a fighter. I think he’s hell-bent on being born, this one...”
Nurse Carmine’s expression wavered. “Oh, honey. I just hope your body agrees with him.”
“It wasn’t you yesterday,” Benji shrugged. “It was someone else. Did you have a day off yesterday?”
Nurse Carmine’s chin rested against his collar. The clipboard slid and wiped through his fingers. Shuffling footsteps moved him towards the monitors, away from Benji. The acknowledgement in his eyes was old and practiced. Please move aside, and thank you. The adult has work to do here. You’re a good boy. A new curiosity kept Benji rooted in his seat.
“I get it. Something grown-up happened. You won’t tell me because I’m a kid and wouldn’t understand it. That’s OK.” The star-pattered soles of Benji’s dirty sneakers twisted to the floor. For a second, his scooting motion lifted the chair’s back legs off the ground. Benji stood, and the legs went back to the ground with a soft snap.
The boy carried himself with straight posture and a soft smile. “I understand. It’s OK.” He placed his hand on the door handle.
Benji stopped. “Yes?”
“I... My wife Judy and I... We lost our baby. It... I don’t know what you’ve seen on TV, but... it died before it could be born. ...He or she died. We don’t know... we didn’t get to find out...”
Benji turned towards the nurse and stood, as if processing every choke and roil in Nurse Carmine’s voice. He mimicked the Nurse’s downtrodden action, and lowered his head. “...Oh. That’s very sad.”
Sad. The best word a little boy knew for such a situation. The only word a little boy knew. He watched TV. He listened in where adults thought young ears did not wander. He picked up words like “cranial trauma” and “hemorrhaging.” But for want of years, his lexicon was still full of holes. The death of Nurse Carmine’s unborn child, the denial of fatherhood, the culmination of hopes, all of this, put in a box stamped with a scant three letters: S-A-D. The nurse stared, as if being hit in the face with such blunt vocabulary had limited his comprehension. What did a little boy understand? What could a boy, even like Benji, be held accountable for understanding?
Benji took one shuffling step backwards. “I... I’m sorry for you. I... I don’t know what it’s like, for a parent to lose their child. But if it’s like a child losing their parent...”
Nurse Carmine took a deep breath. “I... I don’t know. I don’t... I don’t think it is, much.”
“Hey. It’s going to be OK,” Benji intoned. Nurse Carmine stared.
Benji folded his hands together. “It’s part of the song Mom liked. ‘It’s going to be OK. We’re going to laugh at this one day.’”
The Nurse craned his head backwards. Benji followed, looking up into his eyes. “She always used to sing the part after that to me: ‘Don’t let someone tell you you’re no one.’ But I thought the part before it was more important to you. I think it’ll be OK for you. You can try to have another baby, right?”
They had. Goodness, had they tried. But those eyes, those eyes that used words like “cranial trauma” and “sad” together, bled every drop of truth that could be wrung from those song lyrics. Goodwill shone out of that smile onto Nurse Carmine. Did the TV shows talk about infertility? Did they mention a way a body could reject an embryo, assaulting it in a fit of biological xenophobia? Did it matter? You can try to have another baby, Benji said. Of course they could. In a universe where those eyes existed, it was always possible.
“...Yes,” Nurse Carmine replied.
“And i...” Benji caught himself. “...When. My Mom dies, I... I’ll get new parents. I’ll go to a foster home, and... someone will adopt me.” Benji swallowed. “Ms. Leman wishes she could keep me, but she doesn’t make enough money by herself. Teachers don’t make a lot of money. But she promises she won’t let me go to a foster family unless they’re really nice. And she promises she’ll visit as much as she can, even when I’m not in her class anymore.”
“Of course you will,” Nurse Carmine said. Benji’s gaze flinched away.
“...And I won’t cry,” Benji said. “Because I never cry.”
“...Not even at Disney movies,” Nurse Carmine finished.
In those times when Benji left the room, Nurse Carmine took the time to himself to really look at the lady lying on the bed.
Her name, according to the placard at the end of her bed, and slot on his clipboard, was Annabelle. It was not a name she was doing much with. Lying flat on the bed, she could not gesture out her arms to introduce herself to anyone. When someone called out, “Annabelle, Annabelle,” she could not turn her head and smile warmly at her beckoner. Now, it was merely her label, smacked across her forehead to differentiate herself from all of the other patients in the insurance records.
Nurse Carmine could see the aspects of Benji in her. Her hair was darker than his by several shades, but he was young and had obviously not yet had time to go brown. She had his sweetly lumpy nose. He thought the set of his shoulders bore some resemblance to hers. But Benji had obviously taken much from his unseen donor, as well. The nurse thought to peel back her eyelids as well, to check the color of the eyes beneath, but it was not his duty to see if she responded to light. Someone might come and ask questions.
The monitors and the life support systems were making readings, just as they should. The lady was breathing and her heart was pumping, just as it should.
When a comatose person’s relatives decided to take them off life support, it was sometimes euphemistically referred to as “pulling the plug.” That was something of a silly thing to call it, Nurse Carmine thought. Such a tenuous connection as a plug in a socket was too flimsy and weak to entrust a patient’s life to. If such a thing were the case, why, a clumsy Nurse could trip over the wires and accidentally...! How terrible for the patient! Life support was tantamount to none. If the power went out in the city, the hospital had its life support systems wired into private generators and backup power. Such a thing would be more difficult to accidentally sabotage, or even break.
The nurse thought, if, terror of terrors, he were to somehow get careless and accidentally bring harm to a patient, he would have to be quite ignorant to go about it without the rest of the hospital catching wise. His mind began to swim with all the ways he might accidentally harm this woman, this Annabelle, and the ways the hospital would ensure no true harm came to her. (And thank goodness for them!)
If his mind wandered, he might accidentally mark down the wrong readings, which might give the doctor the wrong idea about her health. His penmanship could get sloppy, and the doctor might not be able to decipher it. But as soon as he came in to check on the patient, he’d notice the discrepancies, surely. Wasn’t that a relief? Nurse Carmine mopped the sweat from his brow. His mind churned on. Maybe he couldn’t rule out his own clumsiness. A truly bad fall—one directly into the instruments, maybe while he was holding something heavy—could possibly damage them enough to break them. But when would he ever plausibly be holding something heavy while he was in this room? Never, of course.
His eyes flickered to the thin IV lines, slowly dripping hydrating saline into the lady’s bloodstream.
Such thin plastic tubing. It would slice open easily.
But no. Even a comatose person would not die of dehydration that quickly. Someone would come in and notice, and save the woman’s life.
Nurse Carmine blinked away the worry. The hospital had too many fail-safes. The lady would be alright. With good people like Dr. Goldberg tending to her, she might even, someday, recover. Benji would have his mother back. He would go home. He would never need to go to a foster family. His family would never need replacing. That was how a saver of lives should be thinking, wasn’t it?
But those tubes still worried him. Even if the IVs didn’t come out, or leak, what would happen if someone tampered with the solution inside?
Judy politely excused herself after dinner. She shuffled her plate to the kitchen counter before planting herself in the den, in front of the computer. Marv left the remains of his meal at the table and crept up behind her. Her shoulders edged up as he put his hand on them. She turned around to glare him away, but he saw well enough what she was typing into Google:
She shooed him off into the kitchen to do his chores. The drain clogged as he was scrubbing down the plates. He groped beneath the sink for a bottle of drain cleaner. The transparent liquid vanished into the foamy water in the sink, filling the air with an acrid stench. Slowly, the water began flow away.
What kind of life did Annabelle Cooper lead, anyway? In the technical sense, yes, she lived. But she could not think. She could not speak. She could not love. Bereft of family, her son clung to her side. He crooned songs to her like spells, but she would not wake. He had worked in that hospital long enough to know this was the case. Her son’s current caretaker could not afford to keep him around. The longer Annabelle Cooper lived, the further Ms. Leman had to dip into her savings, and the deeper into poverty she dug herself. And what was it like for her, waking each morning to that vision of her departed friend? As for Benji himself, only the uncertainties of foster care awaited him. All he could hope for was to be adopted by a worthy family. But so many of those were out there, weren’t there? So many families would love to have a sweet and intelligent boy like him around.
Marv moved to cap the bottle of drain cleaner, and paused.
Nurse Carmine exited his car. He hugged his puffed-out windbreaker to himself as a chilly morning breeze struck him. One arm stayed folded against his belly. It was as if he was trying to keep something from slipping out from beneath it.
When Judy had finished with her searches last night, he’d borrowed the computer for a little while. With those snatches of lyrics Benji had taught him, he looked up the song. YouTube had provided him with a music video, and he strode to the hospital doors while whistling.
Hey. It’s gonna be OK. He pictured Benji’s smiling face. We’re gonna laugh at this one day. We’re gonna laugh at this one day.